September 22, 2008
New York City’s first Holocaust memorial site has become the first institution of its kind to publicly honor the Holocaust rescue activists known as the Bergson Group. The project was initiated by Elliot Zolin of Long Island, together with the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies.
A memorial stone recognizing the achievements of the the Bergson Group, which was officially known as the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe, was unveiled today at the Brooklyn Holocaust Memorial Park, in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn.
The stone was unveiled by Nili Kook, the widow of Bergson Group leader Peter Bergson, and Dr. Rebecca Kook of Ben-Gurion University, Bergson’s daughter. They flew from Israel to attend the event.
The inscription on the stone states that the Bergson Group “staged theatrical programs, sponsored hundreds of newspaper advertisements, lobbied government officials and organized a march by rabbis in Washington. These efforts led to a congressional resolution that helped influence President Roosevelt to establish the War Refugee Board, which played a major role in saving an estimated 200,000 Jews and other refugees.”
Former New York City mayor Ed Koch was a featured speaker at the ceremony. He strongly praised the Bergson Group’s efforts and said the city’s recognition of the group was “long overdue.” It was under Mayor Koch’s auspices that the Holocaust Memorial Park was created in 1983 as the first official Holocaust commemoration site in the city.
Rabbi Binyamin Kamenetzky, founder and dean of the South Shore Yeshiva, also spoke at the ceremony. Rabbi Kamenetzky was one of the rabbis who took part in the 1943 march in Washington. Over one hundred students from Mesivta Ateres Yaakov, which is located at South Shore, and from the Ramaz School in Manhattan, also participated.
Rabbi Kamenetzky pointed out that some of the the students had participated in a rally earlier in the day at the United Nations against Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, comparing the rally to the activities of the Bergson Group in the 1940s. ”Every one of us has an obligation to speak out against those who want to destroy the Jewish people,” the rabbi said. “The Bergson Group spoke out then, and we must speak out now.”
Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, principal of Ramaz and spiritual leader of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun, also spoke at the Brooklyn memorial event. He came to the ceremony from the rally at the UN. He recalled that his 1984 book, Were We Our Brothers’ Keepers?, found that many American Jewish leaders had a “business as usual” mindset during the Holocaust years. “But not the Bergson Group,” he said. “They were among the few who realized that what was happening in Europe was business as usual.”
Wyman Institute board member Robert Weintraub told the gathering that Hillel Kook, Ben Hecht, and the other Bergson Group activists were “modern Maccabees” who “showed courage and daring at a time when too many American Jews were afraid to speak out.” Mr. Weintraub said that some Jewish establishment figures had tried to “write the Bergson Group out of history, because they couldn’t forgive the activists for being right when they were wrong.” But in recent years, he noted, the Wyman Institute had succeeded in finally winning public recognition for the Bergson Group, “as evidenced by today’s event.”